In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a haggard-looking old seafarer stops a young man on his way to a wedding. The old man begins to tell his tale to the young wedding guest. The mariner tells of how he, on a whim, shoots the albatross that has been leading his ship through icy waters.
This “hellish thing” cursed the mariner and the crew. The boat then floated from the frozen deeps into fairer waters, with the sun and heat bearing down. Coleridge wrote:
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
With no wind and the ocean at a standstill, misery sets in. One of the most staggering lines in all of poetry comes next:
Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink (bolded mine)
The lead-up to this scenario illustrates much of our modern condition. We often act impulsively, without regard to the repercussions, costs, long-term effects, etc. Seeking entertainment or cheap thrills, we mortgage our futures in Huxleyan fashion. We find ourselves adrift in a sea of information, but none of it is useful to get us out of our predicament. We are surrounded by it, but not a drop to think. Social media of all kinds provides us with all manner of entertaining videos and memes, yet none of it will ever really change our lives.
The reason information can’t help is the same as why the wind and water couldn’t help the mariner. These things were not the reason for his problem. We cannot escape the human condition. We can only attempt to mitigate its harm through learning from past mistakes, those of others and our own.
For the mariner, his impulses and urges led to his curse. Many young people can say the same, whether it is a now-unwanted tattoo, a divorce, or a hefty car payment. We have now been conditioned to check our phones repeatedly, impulsively for most of us. No matter how damning it will be in the future when our kids see us on them all the time, our spouses wish we would hold them the way we hold our screens, and when big tech corporations enslave us with their algorithms.
But there is a glimmer of hope. Coleridge wrote that the wedding guest took the mariner’s story to heart and dwelt on his own mortality:
The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone: and now the Wedding-Guest
Turn’d from the bridegroom’s door.
He went like one that hath been stunn’d,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man
He rose the morrow morn
The Stoics have encouraged us to consider our lives two millennia ago with the hopes that we make better decisions, remember our fate, and be a good person. Seneca wrote in his Letters that we should “accept in an unruffled spirit that which is inevitable.” Marcus Aurelius encouraged us not to argue about what a good man should be and, instead, just be one.
Perhaps the most applicable to the Mariner’s tale is Epictetus’s saying, “No man is free who is not master of himself.” If we cannot master our impulses and deny our lust for pleasure and entertainment, we cannot expect to be free.
We may be saddened by the realization that life is often painful and full of struggles against ourselves and others. But just like the wedding guest, we become wiser by seeing through the fog and heeding the tales of those who’ve come before us.
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4 thoughts on “Don’t Drink the Water: Wisdom From A Seafaring Stranger”
A ray of hope balanced with doubt during high tide! Your article was a much needed read. Great job incorporating poetry into the flow. Here are my fav take aways:
We find ourselves adrift in a sea of information, but none of it is useful to get us out of our predicament.
We cannot escape the human condition. We can only attempt to mitigate its harm through learning from past mistakes, those of others and our own.
Thanks for the feedback. The takeaways were perfect for my intentions.
Yes, we can learn from our mistakes, but it’s even more encouraging to realize we can learn from the mistakes of others if we only pay attention.
You are so right, Mike.